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The Hidden Tales - win tickets to the launch of the Cambridge-based treasure hunt book

A treasure hunt described as the Da Vinci Code for children is launching across the city this summer - and the race is on to find a hidden artefact somewhere in Cambridge.

The Riddle of the White Sphinx is the first book in The Hidden Tales, a new series of illustrated children’s adventure stories funded by the Arts Council.

Sorrel May and Mark Wells at the Fitzwilliam museum talking about their new book, 'Hidden Tales'. Picture: Keith Heppell. (10996241)
Sorrel May and Mark Wells at the Fitzwilliam museum talking about their new book, 'Hidden Tales'. Picture: Keith Heppell. (10996241)

Readers and their families can join a city-wide treasure hunt through Cambridge’s museums to by solving the mysteries and breaking the codes, all set in a fantasy world but linked to real-life museum artefacts and people from history.

The book is a collaboration between three parents who wanted to create a new kind of experience for families where adventure-seeking children were the ones dragging their parents around museums and not the other way around.

Sorrel May, a former TV producer, hit on the idea for the project when she was watching her daughters play on their tablets.

She says; “A few years ago I was aware that my children, who were six and eight at the time, were getting more and more sucked into screens. I had this sense that they weren't even necessarily enjoying the same things together - it was getting really isolated.

“It got me thinking how could I engage them. I remembered that treasure hunts were something that featured a lot in my childhood, especially at Easter when we would work together to work out the clues. That is where the first inkling of an idea came.”

Sorrel wanted to create something like the treasure hunt book that captured the nation’s imagination during the 1970s. Masquerade, by Kit Williams, was a children’s picture book that contained clues that would lead the reader to a real treasure - a buried rabbit sculpture made of gold. It is the 40th anniversary of the book’s publication this year.

She said: “That book really came to life for me with my granny. We sat around the kitchen table and i even think it had been solved at that point so it was more about trying to crack the code together and the excitement of thinking about this treasure trail happening out in the world.”

Aiming to recreate that excitement with her own children, she roped in a family friend - Mark Wells - the former chief executive of Games Workshop and who was now writing his own fantasy novel for teenagers.

She explained her hopes for the book and they hit on the idea of setting a treasure hunt around the museums of Cambridge.

Mark explained: “ I went to the Fitzwilliam Museum on a Saturday to find some inspiration for the story. And it is such a big museum that I decided to borrow an audio guide before I started walking around.

Sorrel May and Mark Wells at the Fitzwilliam museum talking about their new book, 'Hidden Tales'. Picture: Keith Heppell. (10996205)
Sorrel May and Mark Wells at the Fitzwilliam museum talking about their new book, 'Hidden Tales'. Picture: Keith Heppell. (10996205)

“When you put the audio guide on it has the interesting effect of muffling the outside world so it feels like you are walking around in a dream.

“I listened as I strolled past various artefacts and I suddenly thought wouldn't it be great if the voice actually changed and it was somebody other than a museum curator speaking to you. I decided the story would involve children walking through a museum and encountering an entity not actually of our world and that the museum would be a means of connecting with the parallel world. That was the spark for the story.”

The Hidden Tales book begins when Leo and Nina step through the doors of the museum, and stumble upon a centuries-old game of cat and mouse between the mysterious Hidden and the sinister Keeper of Secrets.

At stake are the keys to a secret world, one that can only be freed by unlocking its seven portals and breaking the Keeper’s power. Readers can join the heroes on their quest around the museums of Cambridge, identifying Hidden characters, deciphering clues and discovering their secret objects. The book contains a real treasure hunt with a concealed artefact - tucked away somewhere in the city - for readers to find if they can work out all the clues.

The treasure hunt will take readers around seven of the city’s museums where they must reveal a secret in each one.

Artwork from The Hidden Tales that reveals some of the clues to the mystery
Artwork from The Hidden Tales that reveals some of the clues to the mystery

Mark said: “The Hidden are historical characters who have something in the museum that was of such value to them that when they moved on from our world they couldn't fully move on, they lingered and got trapped in this inbetween world called the World of Secrets. They had this secret connection with our world and because they never revealed that connection to anyone they got stuck.

“There is someone in the World of Secrets called the Keeper and the Keeper governs that world and secrets are power to him, so he is determined to ensure that no secrets ever escape.

So the children go to different museums and discover artefacts and secrets belonging to the Hidden without the keeper finding out.”

He added that all of the Hidden know this poem, which tells them how to escape: “Seven souls to find a key, to pick the lock, and set us free!”

In other words, if the children can reveal the seven secrets then the Hidden will be freed from their prison and able to move on - and the Keeper will lose his power.

Although the three creators remain tight lipped about the artefact that readers can find at the end of the trail, they will acknowledge it is a kind of ‘sculpture’ and is inscribed with a hieroglyphic code that must be deciphered. The code has been created and inscribed by one of the stonecutters at the famous Cardozo Kindersley workshop in Cambridge.

Sorrel May and Mark Wells at the Fitzwilliam museum talking about their new book, 'Hidden Tales'. Picture: Keith Heppell. (10996181)
Sorrel May and Mark Wells at the Fitzwilliam museum talking about their new book, 'Hidden Tales'. Picture: Keith Heppell. (10996181)

To help children crack the code, each museum will have a rubber stamp with a an extra clue to the code that can be collected in the back of the Hidden Tales Book.

Mark said: “I wrote the first chapter the next morning after visiting the museum and sent it to Sorrel and got an email back that evening saying she was really excited. Then I wrote one chapter a week.”

Sorrel added: “I was reading it to my eldest daughter as it arrived and she couldn’t wait to hear the next part.”

The pair brought in Jennifer Bell, who has illustrated a number of books in her career, but she is mainly known for her trompe l’oeil and intricate, life-like murals. These specialist techniques were hugely important when taking on the Hidden Tales commission as it was vital that when the artefacts were brought to life on the page, they kept their unique and historical features.

artwork from The Hidden Tales (10996165)
artwork from The Hidden Tales (10996165)

They then applied for and won arts council funding, as well as the support of the museums. and they carried out a trial of the first chapter in a handful of Cambridge schools.

“One headteacher said it was like the Da Vinci Code for children,” said Sorrel. “We has a lesson on code breaking and one on literacy based on the chapter and the feedback was excellent. Two schools immediately booked trips to the museum based on this small excerpt.”

This was exactly what the Hidden Tales team had hoped, as one of their aims was to encourage local children to visit the museums.

“We know that a lot of children never set foot inside a museum and we felt this would be a brilliant opportunity to get schools involved with a fun project that everyone could take part in,” said Sorrel.

artwork from The Hidden Tales (10996161)
artwork from The Hidden Tales (10996161)

The first chapter of the book is being offered to local schools as a free lesson pack through the hiddentales.co.uk website.

Aimed at Years 5 & 6, teachers are given the first chapter, the first full illustration, lesson plans and worksheets to support the lessons. So far 40 Cambridgeshire schools have signed up with over 20 receiving an Arts Council Funded author visit from Mark Wells.

The book and treasure hunt will be launched on July 1 this year, in time for the holidays but copies can be pre-ordered via the Hidden Tales website. Readers can also visit the AHA (Association of Hidden Adventurers) page on the website to learn tips and tricks on how to solve the mystery.

Books will be available to pre-order from www.hiddentales.co.uk priced at £14.99 +P&P

Stockists include: Heffers, Cambridge Museum Shops, CUP bookshop. ISBN: 9781527240124


We have two Golden Tickets on offer to an exclusive preview event for the Hidden Tales at the Sedgwick Museum on June 29. The winners will also receive a signed book each. At the secret launch - which is invitation only -there will be two children from each school in Cambridge who are taking part in the project, plus our two lucky winners, who will experience the world of The Hidden - including some out-of-this-world effects - and find out more about the quest to discover the secret artefact. Get a head start on this city-wide treasure hunt, plus the book that contains all the clues.

Question: How many secrets must be found to destroy the Keeper’s power? (Hint: the answer is in the article).

Please email your answers to info@hiddentales.co.uk. Also send your child’s name, age and address and a parent or guardian’s contact details. This event is suitable for children aged 8-14 years old. Please include a phone number. Winners will be contacted by a member of The Hidden Tales project and their decision will be final. The deadline is June 14.

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